Going solo: the challenges of leaving a young family behind to take up your Award

One of the hardest decisions Patricia Koki Kumisya ever had to make was leaving behind her nine-month-old son, along with her husband and two other young children in Kenya, to take up her Australian Government Scholarship in Melbourne, Australia.

Now nearing completion of her Masters of Agribusiness at the University of Melbourne, Patricia can hardly contain her excitement at the prospect of being reunited with her family. She opens up during the Reintegration Workshop for graduating Australian Government-sponsored scholars recently held in Melbourne on how she came to the heartbreaking decision and how she made it through the past 18 months without her family.

Patricia recalls being three months pregnant when colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture where she worked, some 60 km outside of Nairobi, Kenya, encouraged her to apply for the scholarship. Convinced that her chances of being successful were low, Patricia simply submitted her application and promptly forgot about it.

Two months later, she received the news that she had been awarded a scholarship to study her Masters in Australia. “And that is when the drama started,” laughs Patricia, her eyes twinkling with bittersweet memories.

As she was due to give birth in August of that year, Patricia deferred her scholarship until the following semester so that she could nurse her newborn son, the third of her young children, all under the age of 10.  “It was tough,” she admits. “My friends who knew of my impending journey advised me to stop breastfeeding so that it would not be such a huge shock to the system for my little boy when I left him, but I couldn’t do it.

“I just couldn’t bear to see my baby crying because he wants to breastfeed and ignore him, so I continued breastfeeding until the day I left.” Patricia’s son was just nine months old. “It was devastating,” confesses Patricia. “I cried a lot because I had nobody here. Between juggling classes and orientation in the same week, readjusting to academic life in a new environment, missing home and painful, milk-filled breasts, it was almost too much to bear.”

Her saving grace came by way of weekly phone calls with her family back home and the knowledge that her sister was caring for her children while Patricia was in Australia. “It also helped to talk to other young mothers who were also studying at the University,” says Patricia.

“We shared our stories and I even encouraged them to cry because crying alleviates stress and you feel better afterwards.”

Reflecting on her decision to leave her son behind, Patricia says, in hindsight and with the benefit of the experience of living in Australia, she would have done things differently. “In all honesty, if I had been more aware of the situation here in Australia or realised in time that it was an option, I would have brought my baby. We are given so much information pre-departure that it is hard to retain everything.

Looking ahead, Patricia says her most important challenge now is how to quickly reintegrate into family life after her prolonged absence from home. While it has been a trying 18 months for Patricia, she is undoubtedly grateful for the opportunity the scholarship has afforded her. “I am not complaining at all. I understand that in life one has to make sacrifices for the greater good.

“Even if I had brought my son here, I would have been facing a different set of challenges as a single mother studying full-time, with day care costs and other responsibilities. Patricia concedes that while it was distressing to miss the important moments in her son’s development, the invaluable skills and knowledge she gained in Australia made all her struggles worthwhile.

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